Grace Dent on Television...Britain’s Hidden Hungry, BBC1

Starving people don’t sing or dance but by following their lives, the Beeb shows what it’s good at

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The Independent Culture

Woe is me. The past seven days, week 44 in the TV schedule, have not been vintage ones for the televisual medium.

It’s one of those weeks where I open my notebook to find under “TV Highlights” a flamboyant Bic Biro doodle of a cat with Dracula fangs and the rough financial workings of how I might re-train as a reiki healer. Plus a load of Malbec-fueled chuntering about last Saturday’s Halloween Strictly Come Dancing where each dance was proceeded by an arduous, spooky comedy skit – truly gentle humour, perhaps designed for people recovering from facial skin surgery who want to enjoy something with their eyes without it troubling their stitches.

Poor, poor me. I’ve already watched Girls on HBO and The Paradise on BBC1 is a bit too French and Saunders “House of Idiot”. Daftness aside, it’s ironic I felt these were life-difficulties in the week when a documentary such as Britain’s Hidden Hungry – focusing on six months at the emergency food banks of Coventry and especially The Trussell Trust – came along and slapped me across my chubby chops.

Here, Bafta award-winning film-maker David Modell followed half a dozen  storylines on starvation. Those collection points that have began to appear outside Asdas, begging for spare cans of beans or teabags; here’s where your donated tins end up. The slightly wilted food you chuck out of your fridges; here are the people it could have kept alive for a week.

One of Modell’s most affecting storylines involved 20-year-old Charlotte; a skinny, pretty, forever effervescent gem of a kid, working at the food-bank, yet hoping to be a social worker, yet starving before our eyes. I call Charlotte “a kid” as she was brought up in care, so although eye-wateringly prudent with money (she can make £15 stretch a week, covering heat, electricity and some food), she lacked a thousand idiosyncratic skills and knowledge nuggets a mother would have taught her.

If this is boring you can simply look away. Starving people are quite boring, aren’t they? They don’t sing or dance or wear much make-up, which is why this show was shoved on at close to midnight. As the BBC, post-Savile, enters another gladiatorial fight about its right to exist, fantastic, emotionally scarring hours of TV like this are farted out with little praise or attention.

I noticed some people on Twitter becoming het up that some of Modell’s food-bank clients owned a dog (no help for them until they’d had it shot, I suppose) or had the audacity to turn up to collect out-of-date sandwiches for their kids in a clapped-out car. One of Modell’s subjects turned out to be a conman scamming the system. Some of the food-bank volunteers wanted the clients to express their love for Jesus as a pay-off for being fed. There were no neat story-arcs here, no solutions offered; simply more head-banging questions and social incongruities.

Living with continuous hunger, we discovered, has its methodology. Benefit-wise, Charlotte fell through the holes in the system and was forced to live on about a fiver a day – about the same as one might idly spend on a bottle of water and a sandwich in Pret, while on one’s way to M&S to stock up on tiny things to tide one over until the weekly supermarket shop. Charlotte, and others filmed, had trained their bodies to expect calories only once a day. At one point, Modell offered to buy Charlotte a sandwich; she refused as it spoiled her hunger regime. I found this daft, but later we saw Charlotte having a little extra money and being able to eat two or three meals a  day, before being plunged back into hunger again  and  suffering a  minor breakdown due to renewed  hunger pangs.

Modell cracks all the time and gives his subjects money. I’m sure this is the “Don’t do number one rule” of documentary making, but I can’t fault him for this. Who could watch a kid from care put her laptop into the pawnshop for food – the laptop she does her college work on (education being her key to freedom from this hell), the laptop she’s using to store her childhood photos on – then not be able to find £30 to claim it back, without giving her the cash?

Long after this show is shoved into the archives, I’ll remember the footage of Charlotte pointing out everyday teenage girls in the street in their Primark leggings and Top Shop jackets, flippantly donned headbands and Converse boots, while dreaming of how it might feel to have a change of clothes and to walk along the street giggling and hooting, linking arms with friends, with a mam at home, making you some dinner and nagging you as to when you’ll be back to eat it, knowing dinner would be there again tomorrow.

Who cares about Charlotte? I do. But now more than ever, I really don’t know how to help her.